Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mend the fence. Build an ark.

Everyone has an explanation as to why there are fractures in evangelicalism. Everyone has their angle. I do. One blogger suggests it's about:
"...boundary maintenance by conservative evangelicals who appear to have captured UCCF at the moment and are paranoid enough to feel threatened by those whose commitment to the gospel and scripture has some differences with their own..." Andii Bowsher
Sitting the room, having breakfast with those concerned I'm not sure it shakes down that way. Sure, UCCF is a conservative evangelical movement - in that we're committed to contending (conserving) for the gospel (evangel). Looking at our history - tracked back to the lesser incident in 1919 (which was not over the truth of penal substitution, only it's centrality), it's certainly not about a movement being 'captured...at the moment' - we've not moved. The only thing that has changed is that we've become a bit better at communicating who we are clearly. That's not normally a bad thing. Now, perhaps one could say it's boundary maintenance to want God's people to be rooted in what God has said? perhaps it could be said that it's boundary maintenance to not want lies to be spread about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? If so, I'm very happy to be a fence-mender. Looking stupid to many in the church.

I also want to be an ark-builder. A man like Noah. Standing around in the middle of a desert building a boat. A really big boat. Not my boat - God's boat. The Jesus boat. The one where rebels like me can flee God's wrath and get a taste of everlasting communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Spending our days glimpsing the glory of God in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified. He who was crucified to bear the punishment I deserved. Crucified so I could die to sin. Crucified so I could be brought to God. Me, Jesus and all God's people happy in an ark. Looking stupid to the watching world. So be it.

When ships pass in the dark, or bloggers post their points for debate it's easy to talk past each other. It's almost impossible to have constructive conversation because nothing stays on topic for long and the format requires us all to speak up - the day bloggers tame our tongues the blogosphere is finished. Can't see that happening anytime soon. My intended philosophy, easily buried by my selfishness, is to critique myself more critically than I critique others - and to presume that others have the best possible motives. That's probably a naive approach, but we all hold our beliefs because we think we're right (otherwise we'd have changed them). I don't feel particularly threatened by those who differ from me - they keep the debate alive. As for paranoia, it seems unlikely. Confident. Careful. Just a family on a mission, with a passion for the trustworthy message about Jesus Christ and him crucified. Passionate for his fame. Passionate for his people.

Since you asked, UCCF is the mission agency I serve within. These are just my ramblings.

9 comments:

  1. Hahahaha - is that going to be your official footer on all future posts after the comments on Adrian's blog?! "Since you ask, UCCF is the mission team I serve within" - very funny.

    I have to say, having read many of the articles and statements without actually yet having read The Lost Message, The Jesus Gospel or PfoT, I'm very confused! Not on the issue and its teaching, but who said what, who believes what etc. I agree with you that we need to believe the best about others. But I read the UCCF statement, believed it, that was fine. Until Broadbent issued his. I wanted to believe him too, but he didn't really give that option. Until that point I had been very much applauding the books that have been written, and the setting up of New Word Alive. Then NT Wright's article on Fulcrum. If the others had confused me, this certainly did. Now someone was saying that he and Chalke do believe in PS, just don't like the charicature. Again, because of the way that makes the UCCF reaction look, there's no opportunity to believe Wright AND Broadbent AND the UCCF statement. Then there's the PfoT defence article which again requires you to "buy in" to it, believing the best about one at the expense of the other. Then I read a comment on someone's blog (read so mny this week, can't remember where) by Maurice McCracken (I think- certainly a UCCFer) along the lines of, although Chalke may believe in a version of PS, he certainly had funny views on the wrath of God. The implication was that this came from some knowledge of Steve Chalke outside of his writings. Well, how are the majority of Christian supposed to validate that statement?

    I suppose what I'me expressing is frustration. At the beginning of this, I was always recommending people buy PfoT and get involved in the debate. It's now confused me to the point that I've stopped doing that. At least until I've got my head around who I believe and why. Ultimately, I do believe in PS and I will follow the leaders God has given me. But in the meantime it is highly frustrating trying to figure out who says what, who meant what etc.

    And from conversations I've had this week, it seems many are giving up trying to comprehend what all the fuss is about, and sadly (and wrongly) giving up understanding the issue too. I will still read the three books so I can be equipped for action, but in the meantime I'm tempted to tune out the bitchslapping between parachurch leaders and CofE figures and get on with building good local churches; yes, based on the amazing truth of penal substitution, but without playing a part in the accusations and fractured relationships.

    That's not meant as an insult, or provocation to a defence (I highly value the efforts being put in, particularly by UCCF, to help people understand the issues, just don't like the accusations) - I'm hoping this is a safe and relevant enough place to express the frustration (which many feel) that in this situation it is virtually impossible to believe everybody. And that at some point you have to make a judgement about who you believe and why.

    I suppose the reason is that two things are happening here. The first and by far most important is the defence of penal substitution itself. The second, in my view subsidiary thing, is the justification of and reasons behind the split from Spring Harvest. To the extent that comments have been on the doctrine itself, the discussion has been a helpful one. I think it's in the vehement defence of one's past actions ("we split because of this...", "no, it went like this - liar") that the discussion ceases to be helpful.

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  2. Agreed. Much confusion - an inevitable flaw in the blogosphere as much as anything else.

    So you've go the likes of me, Adrian, Mo, PFOT and others who want to be clear about Penal Substitution.

    You've got Pete Broadbent (but I don't see many blogs from his point of view) who are pro-PS but don't think Chalke is a problem.

    And then you've got others who are anti-PS and also love Chalke. A number of blogs in this camp.

    My expectation is that we'll hear one last statement from UCCF this week - Pete Broadbent's widespread accusations of lies and false motives by UCCF probably need to be answered. But I think that'll be all we get. As I see it UCCFs only aim here was to provide some clarity as to why 'new word alive' will be happening not to stir up any mudslinging. Once clarity is established we can get on with bookings and practicalities... continuing to contend for the gospel on campus.

    I'd like to think it can all end amicably, but that's probably a bit optimistic.

    Meanwhile there are thousands upon thousands of evangelicals out there oblivious to all of this.

    Maybe I should just pick up my Bible, turn off my laptop and go enjoy the sunshine.

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  3. I'd just like to comment that the measured, and humble, attitude with regard to this issue on this blog has been a pleasure to read. That last paragraph was particularly good.

    Thanks Dave.

    The whole debate has confused me a little too, and made me think again about what we mean by PS. In particular I remember a comment of someone's somewhere that 'PS is not to be equated with propitiation' which made me think.

    Anyhow...

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  4. Thanks for quoting me! I do think that I should explain a bit further though, in the light of what you say. I too have served UCCF and worked with CU's. I have signed the DB and would probably do so again. I recognise the historical reasons for the careful positioning of the DB and the issues of evangelical identity in the student world.

    However, my relationship with UCCF has always been ... that of a critical friend ... This is because there is a tendency for the DB to be used as an exclusionary device rather than to unite evangelicals. It's as if, once we differentiate we just can't get out of the habit of suspicion and judgementalism. And it is that habit that is the most off-putting thing about evangelicals to the wider world, Christian and non-Christian. It means that we don't model Christlikeness but Pharisaic-ness. (And that's a really good study on boundary maintenance: we are the Pharisees)

    So, for those seeking to translate the gospel into different thought-worlds or cultural contexts, we run the constant risk of being shunned by fellow evangelicals because we are having to work with the fact that the forms of words or the metaphors and models used to translate revelation into various cultures are not necessarily the ones that resonate for the evangelical subcultures and their typical 'recruitment demographics'.

    I think, in the case of PSA, the thing is that for huge swathes of our population the popularised version is morally repellent -see the example of the 9-year old I give on the referenced post. And I still maintain that the challenge is to give an account/modal of the atonement that would help that 9 year-old to joyfully accept the work of Christ for himself. The point that moderate evangelicals like Pete Broadbent and Tom Wright make is that while the PSA model is theologically coherent, its pop versions are not and its time to stop dumping on those who are telling us that the emperor has no clothes.

    My point is that, while I believe it is a fair theory or model of scriptural teaching, it is not the only one and, in our cultural situation, may not be the most expedient one to work with routinely. What's the point of proclaiming a view of the atonement which not only fails to connect but actually puts off people of spiritual and moral sensitivity? (Like that 9 year old).

    And don't give me the stuff about 'those destined to perish' etc.: that's a cop out since it is inconsistent with a lot of other arguments that conservative evangelicals typically want to make.

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  5. Hi Andii, thanks for coming back on this. I agree that Doctrinal Bases are sometimes used too negatively - however I'm convinced that we should replace such abuse with right use.

    Confessional unity strikes me as a godly pursuit - one in which we praise God together for his gospel... where we form robust deep partnerships and friendships around the gospel which spur us on. That doesn't have to be built by waving paper at one another but there are times where it's appropriate to put our name to our beliefs. I'm humbled by John Stott's persistent line that he was always overjoyed to be asked to sign a declaration of belief. In our culture a signature is a way of attaching ourselves to something - maybe that needs to be replaced with PIN... but the point remains. I delight to confess the gospel, and to stand with my brothers in Newfrontiers, in the CofE, in the Baptist Union, in Methodism... in anywhere that the gospel is likewise cherished and enjoyed.

    Similarly I agree that PSA is often popularly taught in ways that are abhorrent - the classic caricatures cited in recent debates. But again I say, let's replace abuse with right use rather than non-use... Peter Bolt suggest in The Cross from a Distance that we use no illustrations, others simply that we take much more care.

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  6. Just to clarify, I made my comment on SC's views on wrath on the basis of my reading of the Lost Message. So it should be possible for anyone to verify or disagree with. I certainly wasn't trying to "poison the well" with unsubstantiated hearsay.

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  7. I generally agree that the solution to abuse is right use (John Stott, I think), but I have to ask whether in our cultural situation we can actually do 'right use' on a popularly-accessible version of PSA which can be grasped in essence by, eg an intelligent 9 year old, and convey the important points in such a way as not to easily lead astray (in our cultural situation, I emphasise). I'm coming to the conclusion that we cannot. And I'm concerned that by insisting on PSA in the way they are, UCCF leadership are putting evangelical boundary issues ahead of the gospel, in the last analysis. And I worry because this seems to be the mark of the Pharisaism that Jesus had issues with: zeal for the right (that is ultimately God-derived) boundary markers overcoming the human need of the moment.

    Scripture uses several metaphors for the atonement, I think that to explore and use those in model building in no harm. Perhaps the difficulty is that there are some for whom PSA has been emotionally and intellectually satisfying really having lost empathy with those for whom it has very scarily negative connotations.

    If the focus really is on the the lost, then I'm losing sympathy with this insistence on a particular model which may actually be alienating. I'd prefer to hear them admit that there are people for whom the popular presentation is alienating and that we need to find ways to help them appropriate the message of the Cross as well. If we can agree on that, then I suspect the issue begins to resolve itself.

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  8. Andii,
    It strikes me that any model which reminds us of God's anger has always been unpopular and hard for us to hear. I'm not sure we can get away with saying that it used to be easy and now suddenly its beyond us.

    No-one's saying we can't talk about all the model's scripture proposes. But they are interlinked, and it seems to me that PSA is right at the centre of them.

    If our world struggles to understand that God is both angry with them, and in Christ secures his infinite favour to us then we need to step up and explain it. But, it'll only ever be understood by humbled hearts.

    We're talking this a little at The Coffee Bible Blog if you want to pursue it.

    I'd have to say it's not about boundary markers - it's about contending for God's glory which has got to be our primary concern. If we let PSA drift off centre or off-stage altogether the glory of God as revealed by Him is shattered.

    If someone wants to say it's better to let God's glory go to pursue broader unity then let me be called a 'pharisee'. I really don't think that's what the pharisees were doing though. Theirs was about controlling the people and promoting self-righteousness, this really really isn't that. This is the liberating messages of the gospel that leaves no room for pride. Not the same thing at all.

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  9. Actually the Pharisees are a disturbingly close analogy in that they thought that they were about the Glory of God being manifested in the faithful living of Israel. Their tactics for pursing God's glory were then subverted by certain human frailties as outlined by Jesus. The disturbing thing to get our heads round is that they thought they were doing right and they were working for God's glory. And, btw, I was not intending that you should take from me the label Pharisee! I don't know enough about you to do that even if I was inclined to.

    I think it interesting that you've apparently shifted the ground a bit. And in doing so you have (unintentionally I trust) implied some things that are likely to inflame discussions.

    The talk of God's glory seems to be implying that those who have questions about PSA are not seeking God's glory. That apparent move, my friend, I suspect, is where the big arguments really draw their heat from. The important point is that, for the most part, the opponents (actual and perceived) are also contending for the glory of God as they understand/see it. So the choice you offer is a false one and a derogatory one.

    The really hard thing is that we can't choose between pursuing fuller understandings of truth and unity: they are both expected of us. The hard work before us is how to hold them in tension.

    In order to do that, what we must not do is begin assuming that we *must* be right and the others wrong and that we have good God-glorifying motives and 'they' don't. The truth is we all have a Pharisaic tendency and we all have a tendency to misconstrue, mishear, and scapegoat. We have to make that awareness of our sinful tendencies practical politics in the way we discuss, decide and develop doctrine.

    And in conflating PSA with God's glory, you seem to assume your conclusion; that those who question it are seeking something other than the glory of God.

    I would have to say too that while it may be true that many have difficulty with the idea of God's wrath, it is not necessarily the case with those who are questioning PSA. The generalisation may ill serve the truth of the debate and those involved in it.

    In my original post, btw, I do outline how love and wrath are intimately related and propose a remodelling of PSA which makes clearer the connection...

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